Feature: A rare rainbow connection in Richmond

Church helps open doors for all but the LGBTQ community doesn't feel safe being visible in Richmond, says Sandra Nixon

A small gathering of a few dozen people Thursday evening at West Richmond community centre marked the extent of LGBT pride celebrations in Richmond this summer. The quiet, informal and intergenerational “rainbow social” was marked by some refreshments and games organized by older adults in the neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, this Sunday, Vancouver is set to host more than 600,000 people for its annual Vancouver Pride Parade, celebrating gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. The event will be a boon for local businesses, pulling in an extra $20 million-plus on the day, according to a Tourism Vancouver estimate. Smaller public parties using earmarked civic funding have already happened in Surrey and Abbotsford. New Westminster will shut down its downtown core to celebrate such rights on Aug. 13. 

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What else is happening in Richmond?

“Not a lot, really,” said Alan Hill, the City of Richmond’s diversity coordinator.

However, “we’re certainly there to support West Richmond through promotion, community resources, and any practical way,” he said.

Hill is tasked to receive community input on social events that meet the needs of diverse groups across a broad spectrum.

He believes Richmond, as a community on the whole, has been part of the change to accept the LGBTQ community, although some from within the LGBTQ community may differ on just how much, if at all, Richmondites have shaped the region’s relatively progressive views.

“It became clear that there was an LGBTQ community out there that wanted its needs maybe a little more clearly expressed,” said Hill, who said he is witnessing progress from the grassroots level.

“I think people are becoming more aware there are opportunities and perhaps (Richmond) is a safer place than it used to be, certainly. We’re there to listen and support people. There is a growing awareness,” said Hill.

City spokesperson Ted Townsend added  any LGBTQ group is welcome to organize an event with the city. That just hasn’t happened yet.

“Promotion of tolerance and intercultural harmony are aspects we look for in considering events,” said Townsend (the city, on its own, organized Richmond World Festival to promote cultural harmony).

Despite some inklings of change, school trustee Sandra Nixon is unconvinced Richmond has become an all-accepting place to live.

“It’s obvious the LGBTQ community doesn’t feel safe being visible in Richmond. The fact Richmond doesn’t have a pride event endorsed by the (City of Richmond) and doesn’t fly the pride flag, and the fact the school district has been unwilling to accept a policy on gender expression. . .”

Nixon is working with Gilmore Park United Church on No. 1 Road to broaden the conversation of acceptance.

Gilmore Park Rev. Maggie Watts-Hammond recently attempted to bring levity to the situation by posting on the outdoor church sign: “Jesus had two dads and he turned out OK.”

Picked up by Huffington Post Canada and shared nearly 3,000 times on Facebook, Watts-Hammond said she was happy with the positive comments to the sign, which has since been changed to “Love is Love.”

But a deeper undercurrent of unacceptance exists in Richmond, said Watts-Hammond.

“Children being bullied and women assaulted because people think they’re lesbians. This is what I hear in Richmond and many other places. It behooves us as Christians to speak out,” she said, noting some churches in the city continue to preach conversion practices for gay people.

“How much more clear is it that God would love those who would love one another?” asked Watts-Hammond, whose church will launch an outreach program this fall to begin dialogue with LGBTQ identifying people who may feel unwelcomed, as well as members who may have questions.

“We all have questions when someone is different than us,” said Watts-Hammond.

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“Jesus had two dads and he turned out OK,” reads the sign outside Gilmore United at Blundell and No. 1 roads. Photo submitted.

Another inkling of hope for the local LGBTQ community is a new group for ethnic Chinese people, although it is based in Vancouver.

Rainbow Hall Society co-founder Phoebe Liang, 31, a banker, said many original members are from Richmond and some meetings have taken place at Chinese restaurants.

The society was founded this year and Liang’s mission is “to provide services and activities to help and inspire Chinese LGBTQ people become proud and healthy members of Canadian society.”

Rainbow Hall’s programs primarily focus on academic and career mentorship along with emotional support and counselling services to ethnic Chinese people.

Liang said because Richmond has so many new immigrants from China many don’t have the resources to connect to the LGBT community.

“That’s why we set up this group,” said Liang, whose membership is now at about 100 people.

“We have had a lot of inquires in Richmond. That’s why a lot of activities are in Richmond, because some are not familiar with the transit system yet,” to get to Vancouver said Liang, who volunteers as a witness to gay weddings of gay couples visiting from China.

Liang explained that in China gay rights are suppressed.

“In China, a lot of LGBT groups, they’re under a lot of pressure compared to Canada. They’re not officially allowed to marry in China. In China, rights aren’t protected, so that’s why many immigrate to Canada to be their real selves,” said Liang.

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Justin Tse is a Richmond resident who is about to start work as an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at Northwestern University in Illinois. He has examined how the Christian Chinese population in Richmond and Metro Vancouver has responded to social issues such as gay rights.

To that end, Tse notes it would be wrong to paint the whole community with one brush, as it is actually quite fragmented. However, he does concede elements of the Christian Chinese population have opposed LGBT rights ­— especially in schools.

Tse said he doesn’t think that is necessarily because political policies in China are applicable to the Chinese population here. Nor does he think it has to do with the prevelance in Richmond of evangelical Chinese churches, which chastize gay lifestyles. Rather, the Chinese community here tends to reflect Canadian conservative values which prioritize the family.

Families are economic units that take care of one another, Tse said.

“Anything that disturbs this imagination is going to be a problem. And that’s where the LGBT rights fit in. They believe someone who advocates for these rights will divide their families,” said Tse.

“To my understanding this has nothing to do with Chinese culture or values,” he said.

Rather this notion of private life and family sovereignty has become prevalent.

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Academic Justin Tse believes resistance in the Chinese community to LGBTQ rights is rooted in the fear that such rights will undermine the family unit. Photo submitted

“The Chinese community is often viewed as not integrating. Is it integrating? Most definitely. But . . . if the Canadian values they embrace is a form of privatization, then privatization and integration are two different actions,” said Tse.

But with integration comes being accepted in a multicultural society, according to Tse. And this works both ways.

“Multiculturalism is an overlapping consensus on the views of what Canada is,” said Tse, adding, “There is a responsibility for dialogue.”

What he’s witnessing in Richmond is a more diversely-integrated younger generation that has been educated here.

“There are younger generation Chinese-Canadians who are coming out as gay and bisexual,” said Tse. 

So, a “push and pull” dialogue is occurring in the Chinese community, said Tse.

Just as it may be occurring in the city as a whole. 

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